The early 1900s in the United States was a time of change in many ways, and women, in particular, would soon undergo challenges that would lead to big societal benefits. Until that time, women had been confined to the home in the traditional roles of wife and mother, but their lives began to reflect the growing trend of industrialization and technological developments. As a result of these advancements, women started entering the workforce in larger numbers, expecting better working conditions and wages, seeking higher education and demanding the right to vote.
Women in the Workforce
At the start of the 20th century, 18.8 percent of women were employed outside the home, with many working in factories, as retail sales clerks, typists, nurses and schoolteachers. They often worked very long hours, were poorly paid and their daily working environment could be difficult and even unsafe. This led to the establishment of the Women's Trade Union League in 1903, which worked to develop better working conditions for women, and also encouraged women to join the labor movement.
The women's suffrage movement was making more inroads in the early 20th century. More than 20 states had already granted partial suffrage to women. This typically meant that voting rights were only granted to certain classes of women, who could only vote on certain matters, such as local issues concerning schools and bonds. They were barred from voting in congressional and presidential campaigns. More states began to grant women full voting rights later in the 1900s, including Kansas, Oregon, California, Montana and Nevada.
World War I
Greater numbers of women started working during World War I. They began to work in nontraditional jobs as mechanics, police officers and truck drivers as necessary replacements for men who had left to fight in the war. The end of the war and the return of the men displaced women from these jobs but only after they had gotten a taste of new opportunities.
Resistance to Reform
Many women breaking out of their traditional roles in the early 20th century faced enormous resistance from all levels of society, not the least of which came from other women who insisted they should remain in their traditional roles. Women who demonstrated and fought for labor reform, voting rights and birth control often faced arrest and discrimination. In 1916, Margaret Sanger was arrested after opening the first birth control clinic in the country.